Recall the Medieval Seven

You’ve seen the bumper stickers from time to time, “Free Leonard Peltier” and similar cries for justice for various political and economic prisoners from around the world.

Today, after reading this blog entry and the attendant article, I’m tempted to make my own bumper stickers.

I think it’s time for us as teachers to RECALL THE MEDIEVAL SEVEN!

The Seven Liberal Arts, that is:

  1. Grammar (Update — 12/1/2011 — linked to post about recent efforts at teaching grammar)
  2. Rhetoric (Update — 12/2/2011 — linked to post about recent efforts at teaching rhetoric)
  3. Logic
  4. Arithmetic
  5. Astronomy
  6. Music
  7. Geometry

Because really… all sorts of people are telling us, regularly, that these these things are elemental.  Our students know how to read and write, sure.  But they also need to know how to reason, how to work with advanced mathematics (in both the equational [4] sense, and in the spatial [7] sense shown above), and they also need the real-world applications of that grammar, logic, and mathematical thinking as expressed in music and astronomy.

People will throw their hands up in dismay, and say, “oh, really, Andrew… you can’t expect us to go back to a medieval educational paradigm just because you’re making a (bad) joke.” But no, really.  What is software programming but grammar and logic?  What is geography but geometry and astronomy?  What is literature and history and even science but arithmetic and logic?

There’s a reason this was the basis of the medieval curriculum.  It worked.  It instructed students in how to look at the world, and to deduce universal truths from certain premises.  Aside from a degree of blindness to issues where God was concerned, the medieval curriculum was an astonishingly good way to preserve what could be preserved of classical literature, and prep the world for the Renaissance.

Don’t believe me? You should have seen way the medieval Church condemned the  reading of Aristotle after the death of Thomas Aquinas.  There was a widespread recognition that Aristotle’s logic could blow the socks off of the usual arguments about God — because the medieval academics were honest enough to apply the seven liberal arts effectively to the texts of the rediscovered Greek.

Renaissance scholars, in a more tolerant environment three hundred years later, applied the same seven tools of scholarship to the writings of even more dead Romans and Greeks when their works started to re-emerge from old libraries and hit the new printing presses.

The Seven Liberal Arts was a mindset that could be applied to any information set, and I think it could be adapted to the modern curriculum of connectedness, collaboration and community.

We already know its creative powers.  Music, astronomy and geometry? At least the artwork would be beautiful.

Update: I revisited this issue in mid-October 2011.

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  1. The reason these were the elements of learning in the Medieval era was that they believed the world was flat, leeches cured illnesses, and the politics was based on divine right to rule. There was no physics or chemistry or biology as we know them, political or social studies (or, as Americans call them, civics) consisted of siege warfare and burning at the stake. Disciplines like geography, geology and geophysics were unheard of. By ‘logic’ the medievals meant Aristotle’s syllogisms, Arithmetic was counting and adding, geometry was derived from Euclid, and the two were quite separate (Cartesian coordinates not being developed until Descartes). There is no good argument for reducing education – or even a Liberal education – to the Medieval seven, and many good reasons to wish a broader horizon for today’s students.

    • I was partly being facetious, because — given that I am a history teacher — I am aware that the medieval education was sorely lacking in biology and chemistry and physics. Nor am I suggesting that we restrict the education program to ONLY the books and teaching methodologies allowed in the medieval university.

      To take but one example from the medieval seven, though, I would want the teaching of Astronomy as being deeply inclusive of all the sciences, and recognizing that there are strong interrelationships between the structures of stars and the periodic table, that the same gravity which holds the planets in their orbits holds us on Earth, and that the forces and atomic bonds which bind the universe together also form the building blocks of life.

      When I say that I want to resurrect the medieval seven, I’m saying that I want to promote the reintegration of branches of knowledge in school, particularly in the lower grades, like 5th through 9th.

      I certainly didn’t mean to suggest I want to go back to thinking the world is flat — because the scholastics themselves didn’t see the world as flat. Albertus Magnus, in the margins of his copy of Aristotle, wrote a note to himself not to trust Aristotle completely because of the Greek’s explanation of a flat-earth theory. Albert mentions specifically the disappearance of the hull before the mast when a ship sails over the horizon, and references the well and “pillar” of Eratosthenes. And when Aristotle said the Equator was an uncrossable ring of fire, Albertus refuted it by discussing sailors, and black Africans… and went to far as to theorize the existence of a South Polar continent, “where the rabbits – if there are rabbits – are all white, to hide in the snow that must be there.”

      So… believe me or not, but I’m actually trying to argue for a broader and less limited curriculum by saying this, and urging a wider range of topics covered under the medieval seven, than simply accepting the Five Modern Confining Arts of “math, science, history/civics, literature, foreign language” which leaves very little room for the arts.

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